Coming of Age

Last summer, my husband and I went on a private sail on Chesapeake Bay—just the two of us. We had no idea that it would be our last.

Between us, Bruce and I have gathered over 90 years of boating experience in all kinds of water and weather conditions, including “blue water” or ocean sailing. We love the exhilaration of brisk winds on sunlit days and are fascinated by the many places to explore and anchor on the Bay. From Baltimore to Solomons Island to Norfolk, there are few places we’ve missed.

Our favorite anchorage is on Dividing Creek on the Upper Wye River near St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore, and it was there that we made an annual pilgrimage. One year, we stayed at anchor for four nights watching the blue herons stalk their prey and the bald eagles guard their nests. We relished the peace of early morning, when the water is like glass broken only by the slap of a jumping fish or the gentle putt-putt of a waterman’s boat.

Gradually, we became more cautious and listened carefully to the marine forecast before setting out. Sometimes we raised only the foresail, leaving the mainsail down. Even in our 70s we knew we could handle any kind of trouble that arose.

One day last summer, we found a window of quiet weather in an otherwise stormy week and set out from Rock Hall. We glided across the Bay and slipped into the narrow mouth of the Magothy River. Behind the protection of Gibson Island we dropped anchor and settled into a quiet evening of reading, conversation, and a leisurely dinner.

It was morning when the trouble began. I knew that I no longer had the strength to haul up the anchor with its 20 feet of heavy chain, so this pleasure fell to Bruce. After breakfast and with a deep sigh, he was ready for the challenge. “We who are about to die salute you!” he declared and up to the bow he went. With much effort and a few breaks to catch his breath, he got the anchor out of the bay muck and up to the water line. Now what? The anchor refused to right itself so that it could be hauled on board. Bruce was sweating, covered with mud, and bleeding from several abrasions on his forearms. I joined him on the bow to help. As we struggled, the weight of the anchor propelled him forward directly onto me, re-injuring the broken ribs I had sustained a couple of months before. In the meantime we were drifting towards shore and in danger of going aground. Clutching my painful side, I steered us to deeper water while Bruce tried again. No luck. As I watched the scene unfold, I couldn’t help thinking: Please, what are we doing here?

Finally, we gave up and left the anchor dangling off the bow—not a recommended practice, as it could swing into the bow and cause serious damage in rough weather. Fortunately, the trip back was benign. We hadn’t damaged the boat and we had sustained no serious injuries, but it could have been otherwise. We were shaken.

I had been wondering for some time how much longer we could continue to sail, given our ages. How would I ever be able to retrieve him if he fell overboard? Though we do possess these 90 years of combined experience, we lack the strength, agility, and stamina we once had. Apparently, Bruce had been having some of these thoughts, too. As we sat in the cockpit having a beer, he looked at me. There was a long pause. “I don’t think we can continue to sail alone,” he said quietly. I nodded my head in agreement, saddened, but relieved that we had faced reality.

We’ll sail again with friends, but we’ll forever miss the tranquil mornings on “our” Dividing Creek.

Vicky Wood is a retired teacher and freelance writer who lives in Bethesda.